connect the dots: Gosling in Half Nelson.
Content of His Character
by Ryan Fleck
Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is a dedicated—though slightly rebellious—junior
high school history teacher in Brooklyn. He maintains an easy
banter with his students, peppering his lessons with wry slang
expressions (“Oh, no you d’int!”), which position him somewhere
between teasingly accessible and outright clownish in the
eyes of his students. He coaches the girls’ basketball team
with the same blend of doting patience and goofy insouciance
(“Not in my house,” he playfully trash talks one player during
practice). His unkempt charm wins him indulgence from the
kids, from the administration, from his fellow teachers, from
seemingly everyone he interacts with—audience included.
Which is an important survival skill when you are a crackhead.
Dan’s got a rehab-proof coke problem, and as the movie progresses
he spends more of his weeknights scoring and smoking rock,
hitting the clubs and picking up sad, anonymous fellow partyers.
His attention and patience begin to drift, and his work and
relationships suffer. Sounds like a movie—or an after-school
special—you’ve seen before, doesn’t it?
Familiar though the plot may be, Half Nelson is an
exceptional movie. The film itself is a macro-reiteration
of many of the complex and ambiguous lessons Dan tries to
impart to his eighth-grade students: History is change; change
is the clash of opposing forces over time. This lesson, the
movie implies, holds true for personal history, as well. We
get brief glimpses of Dan’s history in the form of a visiting
ex-girlfriend and a dinner party with his affluent parents,
but the filmmakers are remarkably restrained. Any conclusions
drawn about the formation of Dan’s character are, at best,
educated guesses—partial and somehow unconvincing. He is contradictory
(high praise to screenwriter Anna Boden and writer-director
Ryan Fleck for that).
After Dan is discovered freebasing, postgame, in the girls
locker room by his student Drey (the remarkably self-assured
Shareeka Epps), he tells her not to be to quick to judge.
He does not defend the act, exactly; instead he points out
to her that just because she knows this one thing about him,
she does not know everything: “One thing doesn’t make a man.”
Coming from a guy charged with the care and education of a
group of 13-year-olds, a guy who moments before was laid out,
sweating, on the bathroom floor, high as hell, this seems
fatuous and irresponsibly self-serving. But it’s the very
heart and point of the movie. Viewers know, in fact, more
than one thing about Dan, and about Drey (again, just incredibly
acted by Epps). But Half Nelson refuses to do the math
for you. You are presented an accumulation of character detail—all
of it convincing, all of it affecting, none of it pat, none
of it final—and left to reconcile any oppositions yourself.
Confidentally directed, well written and perfectly acted,
Half Nelson is, perhaps, most exceptional and most
satisfying in that it refuses to treat its audience like simpletons.
Like Humpty Dumpty
the King’s Men
by Steven Zaillian
the King’s Men, version 2.0, is so tightly stitched together
that one can’t help but note the hard work filmmaker Steven
Zaillian put into making it. The much-longer original version
was previewed and rejected by test audiences over a year ago;
this two-hour cut is an honorable attempt to salvage something
of this clearly big-budget effort. Alas, it’s a total failure:
All the King’s Men 2006 is a bungle of Robert Penn
Warren’s novel, a pale shadow of the Oscar-winning 1949 film
and a travesty of history.
It’s the story of Willie Stark (Sean Penn), a crafty Louisiana
demagogue—based on the real-life Huey Long—who employs his
righteous anger, country wit and rhetorical gifts to become
governor in the 1930s.
Oh wait, this version sets the action in the 1950s. This makes
absolutely no sense. The moment when an American populist-fascist
could have come to power was the Depression, not in the middle
of the Cold War or the start of the Civil Rights era. A 1950s
Willie Stark would have railed against the “communists” and
Anyway, Stark sets out to end the free ride the oil companies
have enjoyed, and do good for the poor people of his state;
eventually, though, power corrupts Stark and he becomes a
brutal monster. In this picture, however, the good Willie
lasts for about five minutes, followed by two hours’ worth
of monster. Even with Penn doing his best, this Stark proves
to be monotonous, grim company.
If the film mangles the source material, with its grand themes
of social change, economic justice and the decline of the
Southern gentry, this error is nothing compared to what the
reediting does to the poor actors.
Set aside the obnoxiousness of casting a platoon of Brits
who wouldn’t know a Southern accent if it stung them in the
ear. The recut destroys perfectly adequate performances by
Anthony Hopkins (as a eccentric old judge) and Kate Winslet
(as a daughter of the vanished upper class). Winslet’s character,
especially, seems to have been shredded; her actions are mostly
The focus is almost exclusively on Jude Law’s reporter-turned-flunky
and Penn, and that conflict just isn’t interesting enough,
either personally or politically.
Not that the longer version would have been much better. Zaillian
is a clueless writer-turned-director who knows almost nothing
about telling a story visually. Worse, he thinks he
does, and so loads the film with artsy, beautifully lit compositions
that signify nothing.
Then there’s the genuinely awful score by James Horner. It’s
an orgy of dramatic overkill, which . . . you get the idea.
All the King’s Men stinks.
by Jeff Tremaine
Now hear this: Jackass Number Two is the funniest film
of 2006. I know that’s saying a lot, what with the Borat film
at the top of the fall release schedule, but I’m doubling
down on this one. Because what’s funnier than a bunch of guys
hitting each other in the groin? You’ve got nothing. I knew
Johnny Knoxville returns to the Jackass fray following
a relatively unsuccessful foray into indie cinema (Grand
Theft Parsons, Daltry Calhoun) and lowest-common-denominator
Hollywood fare (The Dukes of Hazzard, The Ringer),
supposedly having sworn off the madness after wrapping Jackass:
The Movie in 2002. You won’t need to get to know characters
or search for a premise here, especially if you’re already
familiar with the franchise: Simply, Knoxville and his band
of freaks seek to out-gross or out-punish each other for 93
minutes. The entire gang is back, including professional vomiteer
Steve-O (rarely pictured in more than a Speedo, natch), Bam
Margera (who displays a, shall we say, sensitive side
this time out, that cry-baby), and Jason “Wee Man” Acuña and
Preston Lacy, both of whom take their first dive into stuntery
(that is if you count being smothered by a female sumo wrestler
as a “stunt”).
But where the first movie was merely an extension of the ground-
and ball-breaking MTV series, complete with grosser gross-out
gags and more-bruising stunts, Number Two is played
almost entirely for laughs, and it succeeds a good 90 percent
of the time. There’s an obvious “Hey, let’s make a movie”
tone throughout, from the production pieces that frame the
film to the banter before and after skits.
And the skits, as potentially bone-breaking as they may be,
are based largely on two of our most-cherished American treasures:
slapstick comedy and Looney Tunes. (Firing Knoxville into
the air aboard a giant, red rocket is pure Wile E. Coyote;
all that’s missing is the ACME logo.) In fact, a number of
the so-called stunts turn out to be pranks on various cast
members—the film’s final big prank is at once hilarious, vile,
and damn near genius. Step back, Ashton, it looks like you’ve
Add to that some eye-watering cameos from Spike Jonze, John
Waters, and Broken Lizard’s Jay Chandrasekhar, and you’ve
got a winner. Plus, several punchlines consist of little more
than a nut-shot, and what’s funnier than that?